Roasts and race in segregated South Africa

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Anthony FortuinFrom my letterbox I retrieve an envelope with bright South African stamps and my mother's handwriting. I rip it open and stand on the pavement reading a cutting from the East London Daily Dispatch, newspaper of the town in South Africa where I was born.

The article is called 'My Kinda Town' — in which street sweepers, traffic cops and domestic workers spill their dreams and desires to a journalist bent on humanising the foot soldiers of mundane life. The face of the man in the photograph, a car guard on the East London beachfront, stares out at me.

As I read, my mind flees Hyacinth Street, Sydney, and lands as a ten-year-old in the courtyard of my South African home. There, under the wash lines eight-year-old Anthony Fortuin, named in honour of my father, was clinging to me. From the scullery window where she was washing dishes, his mother, our cook, Katrina, screamed, 'Let her go, what you thinking? Lord, this child of mine is naughty.'

'Mum, where are you, Mum?' My daughter calls from inside the house. 'It's lunchtime.' Irritated at finding me in a reverie on the street, she takes the proffered cutting and stares at the photograph. 'Who is this man?'

According to the article, 54-year-old Anthony Fortuin cleans gutters and guards cars around the aquarium in East London. He says some people give him money. When he gets 50 Rand he buys himself a piece of pre-cooked chicken, otherwise he eats brown bread. 

Where is your mother? my memory screams for him. Your mother, who roasted fat chickens and legs of lamb in our oven, your mother who cooked giant pots of meaty bones for our dogs, her brown arms pitted with burns from our kettles when alcohol impaired her vision and rattled her hands?

'All I want,' says Anthony, 'is a workman's vest so that people know why I'm here.'


A few years ago in the Valhalla cinema in Sydney I watched a film of the music of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The heroism of the 1976 school children humbled me and inspired hope for the generations to follow. I wept from beginning to end.

In the seat next to me, a man with brown arms and a brown face shuffled and wept too. I conjured his Robben Island political prison story from his restless sighing. I wanted to hug him but it would have been only to comfort myself.

The course of our lives would never have intersected so intimately that we wept together, had we not left a bedevilled South Africa and crossed oceans and skies to land in Australia.

At the same cinema, a few years later, I watched John Pilger's film on economic apartheid in the new South Africa, and the unrelenting poverty of the majority in such a wealthy country.

I was born and educated in South Africa. One of the most valuable things I learned was to keep my eyes and ears open. It was that which eventually sent me to live overseas. The lineages of learning created in us whites gave us multi-generational privileges denied to Anthony, who grew up in my childhood courtyard.

The beachfront he patrols is the same stretch of road where, in the '70s, my lawyer-father cruised his limo packed with street kids, giving them the ride of a lifetime. That was after I'd been to university, while Anthony was riding the troughs and crests of a thoroughly disadvantaged life.


After lunch, I sit at my computer.

'Dear JD,

'Your column, yet another lance in the abscess of my memory, has caused me grief and I thank you for taking my thoughts to that distant time and place.

'I remember Donald Woods, as editor of your newspaper, receiving hatred from a few and great respect from the many whom he raised up for all to see.

'I will mail a vest for you to pass on to Anthony.'

At 5pm, the journalist in South Africa, replied. 'Thank you for reading my story. I'm sure Anthony will appreciate receiving a vest from overseas.'

Later, my mother tells me my sister drove to the beachfront to look for Anthony but didn't see him.

'Well,' I tell her, 'JD saw him there this morning on his way to work.'

If he wears a fluorescent vest, our courtyard brother cleaning rubbish will be seen by all. 

Cecile YazbekCecile Yazbek is a Sydney-based writer, author of Olive Trees Around my Table
Growing up Lebanese in the old South Africa and Mezze to Milk Tart — Recipes and Stories from my Vegetarian Kitchen.

Topic tags: Cecile Yazbek, South Africa



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Existing comments

Thank you Cecile for relating your tender childhood memories and, in matching words with action,sending a fluoro vest to your deprived, but well remembered courtyard bother, Anthony.

Marie Hart | 31 October 2011  

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